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Flight by starlight: The life of Leland Brand, a story of North Dakota

Leland Brand has been living at the Stonehammer Ranch much of his life, and the ranch itself has endured since before North Dakota was even a state. Iain Woessner / The Dickinson Press1 / 2
Rancher Leland Brand goes through a collection of Indian arrowheads he's collected over the years, enduring traces of history, at his home on the outskirts of Taylor. Iain Woessner / The Dickinson Press2 / 2

Leland Brand was born Leland Johnson on June 14, 1921, eight miles southeast of Taylor. His father worked for General Electric in Chicago before he returned home to take over the family ranch. His mother attended the ladies Lutheran seminary, where she studied music.

Leland never got to hear his mother sing.

"She died when I was two-years-old," Brand said. "Around Christmastime in 1923 ... (my mother) took ill and by New Year's Eve they had decided she had to get to the doctor, the hospital. Of course at that time it was a horse and sleigh into Taylor and a train into Dickinson. She arrived there on New Year's Eve and there was no doctor on duty and she didn't get any attention until noon the next day. Her appendix had burst. She was 34."

In the early part of the 20th century, life was hard in the Dakotas. Brand's father lost his arm in an elevator accident, and found himself unable to care for the younger children, Leland and his sister, Charlotte. They moved in with Sam and Catherine Brand and their son Theodore, on the ranch Leland resides on to this day, a place known as Stonehammer.

"Sam (Brand) had immigrated from Switzerland in 1883 and he was always more into livestock than farming. By 1888 he had a herd of cattle ... maybe 60 to 70 head of cows and the calves all had to be branded. So he drew the outline of the hammer, which they work the stones for the foundation of the buildings ... and that's why we call the ranch the Stonehammer Ranch," Leland recalled. "He registered that brand in 1888 when it was still Dakota Territory."

Stonehammer is currently run by Leland's grandchildren. It's weathered a lot of hardship in Leland's lifetime, an era when country roads became truly impassable in the winter, and when sleigh and horse were the common ways to get around. Stonehammer also had to endure what Brand calls "The Dirty Thirties"—what others know as the Dust Bowl.

"I first started working out in the field at the start of the 30's. This year, the drought that hit here, you know how it affected everyone with cattle, trying to find feed and water and pasture? Picture six years in a row like that," Brand said. "That's the Dirty Thirties."

During this dry spell, Leland accompanied Sam to take the cows out to an untouched section of pasture, about 12 miles north of Gladstone. It hadn't been grazed for several years, so dry grass was standing tall.

"We trailed the cows and calves up there and we'd check on 'em of course, every week," Leland said. "They seemed to be doing okay, it was dry hay so they had big bellies, which made them look fat."

Come fall, the two went to go collect their cattle and take them back home.

"We took 'em out of the pasture and started on the road for home and we hadn't gone a mile and a cow went down," Leland said. "She not only went down but in a few minutes she died. Nobody ever explained but some way, with no green (grass) ... they just couldn't survive. At least, not individually. By the time we got home we had lost five or six. So that was 1935."

As debate about the impending 2018 Farm Bill is underway, with much concern about what will become of the safety net programs that exist for farmers, Brand can recall a time when there was no expectation, nor hope, of government assistance for farmers.

"There was no government aid until 1936 and the Fair Deal," he said. "Otherwise the government just forgot us."

Tragedy and survival

The Brands survived the Dust Bowl, but tragedy followed the family even away from the farm. Ted Brand, the Brands' biological son, was a talented mind, a graduate of Yale and an accomplished boxer.

"An incident I remember, we went to a carnival in Dickinson and the carnivals would have a tough guy who had boxing gloves and he'd challenge any man in the crowd to stand two rounds with him and you'd get ten dollars," Leland said. "Well anyway Ted accepted that challenge and at the end of the first round the tough guy gave him his ten dollars and said they'd cancel the rest of the fight, he didn't want no more."

Ted worked with the Bureau of Reclamation and was an engineer assigned to work out of the Denver office. However, he went to the hospital to have a boil lanced—a routine procedure that nevertheless resulted in Ted growing sick, infected, and ultimately succumbing. He was 25 years old.

Leland suspects the medical instruments they used had been improperly sterilized.

The world at war

Leland's family on the Johnson side had adventures in their own time. WWII impacted the Brands and Johnsons alike, with Leland's brother Art serving in the Navy and surviving the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

"He was the senior officer on board the destroyer Mugford and they were tied up just across from Battleship Row and the torpedo planes especially were coming right over the stern," Leland said. "When they brought the second wave of planes, Art's ship was ready and the Mugford was credited with shooting down three Japanese planes, so they got some fighting back."

For Leland himself, it was the skies that held his fortunes—an interest in aviation saw him completing his civilian pilot's training and, as the call came out for WWII, he decided he didn't want to serve in the infantry. Dropping out of college, he went to Minneapolis and got a commercial license and an instructor's rating. He joined the Naval Reserve and was assigned to a flight school in Minot that had just gotten its first Navy cadets.

"In two years of instructing up there we put through just under 500 pilot cadets. That's all we were doing, seven days a week," He said. "It was fun."

Of the six students he personally taught, four survived WWII.

Brand's flying made him a valuable asset to friends and neighbors when he returned to Stonehammer close to the end of the war. His adoptive mother had been working the property practically on her own. He returned and ultimately met the woman he was to marry, Gail. On their honeymoon, they visited hardware stores, collecting boxes of shells, and he went coyote hunting with them, selling the furs to buy his first tractor.

Midnight flight

At times he'd be called to do supply runs for snowbound neighbors, and one cold, dark night stands out in particular.

"Neighbors down here, they live ... near the Heart River. They had a one-year-old boy and he had pneumonia," Brand recalled. "(The father) had hitched his team via bobsled ... but by the time he'd got half a mile he realized his team was already wore out so he had to turn around."

With no way for the neighbors to get to the hospital by their own means, Leland came to their rescue.

"There was no moon that night but with a solid snow cover and it must have been clear with the stars, so that I could see enough that I could go down and land on a little spot behind his house," he said. "I loaded up Hilda (the mother) and the baby, but then I couldn't get off the ground again because it was too much weight ... so I had to let her out at the base of the hill, then I took off by myself, landed atop a plateau, left the airplane, walked down."

The snow was knee-deep, Brand said.

"I had to carry the baby and Hilda held onto the back of my jacket ... we got them onto the airplane and into Dickinson," he said. The child survived, and decades later, fate saw the two meet once again.

"About five years ago I'm at a volleyball tournament in Bismarck and my great-granddaughter's playing and this guy introduces himself," Brand said. "He mentioned that his folks had told him about his trip to the hospital in the airplane at night."

At 96 years old, Brand is living on land that's been kept within the family for over 100 years. He hopes Stonehammer Ranch will endure into the next era.

"We have five boys, my great-grandsons, out on the ranch," Brand said. "I'm hoping that Stonehammer might exist for a few more generations."